The Pan of Hamgee has gone to Mama Jack’s cafe where he has been cleaning the skirting boards for the propriatoress in return for breakfast. While there, he meets two middle aged gentlemen, Burton Coggles and Boothby Pagnel. Mr Pagnel is approached by some beings who look like gang members with a message from his wife. He goes off with them. Mr Coggles is worried and The Pan, who has been watching, offers to follow Mr Pagnel and the goons to see where he goes. In return Coggles offers him breakfast the next time he visits the cafe. It turns out Mr Pagnel might well have been kidnapped so The Pan reports back. They must now wait to see for certain. If Mr Pagnel doesn’t turn up to meet Coggles in two days, he probably has been kidnapped and Mr Coggles can takes steps. This is where The Pan has returned to talk to Coggles.
‘I’m glad you remembered to come in. Mr Coggles wouldn’t want you to miss your breakfast,’ said Jenny as soon as The Pan arrived at Mama Jack’s. ‘The special is a bang on K’Barthan greasy fry up today, so you’ve struck it lucky.’
There was a result.
‘Ooo that sounds good,’ said The Pan. He glanced at his watch. He’d tried to time his arrival after all the beings who stopped for breakfast before starting work at nine but before the retirees and students who’d turn up at about nine thirty for a leisurely start to the day. ‘Is Mr Coggles here?’
‘Yes, and he’s already paid for yours. He’s in the back, waiting for Mr Pagnel.’
‘I’ll have to thank him,’ said The Pan.
‘You go on through,’ said Jenny.
The Pan made his way through the beaded curtain, crossed the kitchen and knocked on the door of the office the other side.
‘Come in,’ called a voice.
When The Pan walked in, Burton Coggles had leapt to his feet and said, ‘Boothby!’ before he could stop himself. There was an awkward pause. ‘Ah, not Boothby then.’
‘No, I’m sorry.’
‘Why do I think that’s bad news?’
‘It might be. To be honest, I don’t know. I have a bit more information about him though … sort of.’
‘Then you’d better join me and sit down. Sit there,’ Burton pointed at the chair opposite his.
‘Right, thanks,’ said The Pan, taking off his hat and cloak and draping them over one of the other two chairs.’
Burton sat opposite The Pan, fixed him with a beady eye and steepled his hands.
‘Well?’ he said.
There was something slightly uncomfortable about bearing the full weight of Burton Coggles’ attention. Nothing sinister or anything, it was just that there seemed to be rather a lot of it. For all his flamboyance and the odd ‘ducky’ or ‘darling’ dotted about his speech Burton had an intensity of purpose about him when he asked a question which was striking. It also suggested that behind the slightly camp exterior was a fierce intelligence. He was good looking; male lead levels of handsome and that, with the intensity made him slightly intimidating. The Pan wondered if he had cultivated the theatrical mannerisms and thrown the odd ‘darling’ into his every day conversation in order to be more approachable. When he flipped between the two it was like talking to two different people. With either persona he had that tell-tale confidence, the kind of confidence Big Merv had.
Despite this, Burton Coggles was surprisingly easy to talk to. The Pan didn’t feel the least inhibited chatting to him, it was just that every now and again he caught a disturbing glimpse of just how much Coggles was learning as much from what other beings didn’t say to him, as what they did. All those non-verbal cues it didn’t occur to the average being to mask or which, in The Pan’s case, he couldn’t mask. The Pan wondered how much Burton Coggles was picking up from him during their conversation and felt a slightly prickly fear that it was more than he wanted to reveal. Except that Coggles was a good man. He knew it. The Pan trusted his instincts about other beings because he’d learned they were often correct.
‘I—’ The Pan began and stopped. Should he mention Big Merv? Hmm. Best not. ‘OK, I work for someone who is interested in Marcella, the Pirate. He’s—’
‘Marcella, the who?’
‘The Pirate she’s in business in the Tarbut area.’
Coggles sat back in his chair, relaxed and completely still, ‘Yes?’ he said.
‘You mean she “runs” Tarbut, I assume,’ he raised his eyebrows quizzically and waved one hand. ‘In the gangland sense?’
‘I’m afraid I do, yes,’ The Pan admitted. ‘It probably doesn’t matter who I work for but, he has discovered that Marcella has come into a lot of money and she is showing ambitions of expanding her empire. That’s alright, sort of, so long as she’s smart enough to operate at a higher level and it doesn’t upset the status quo.’
‘Status quo for whom?’
‘It’s difficult to say.’
Burton flashed him a disarming smile.
‘Shall we try multiple choice?’
‘For whom might the status quo be upset? Is it; a, the authorities, b, beings working against the authorities or c, members of the city’s vibrant criminal underbelly.’
The Pan smiled.
‘I— C. The last one.’
‘There’s a surprise. You needn’t be so cagey. I took your advice and I went to the internet cafe opposite the Botanical Gardens and looked you up.’
‘You did?’ said The Pan. Oh dear, oh dear.
‘I did. You have been a very naughty boy it seems, although, I couldn’t quite place the point where your father’s record stops and yours begins. It doesn’t look as if the authorities have much of an idea either.’
‘Yes, I’d heard it was a bit ambivalent, myself. I think that’s part of the problem,’ said The Pan. He thought back to the horror of his one and only visit to the Old Architraves’ Palace, or the Grongolian Security HQ as it was now called. He still didn’t understand what had happened there, but some Grongle major had refused to believe the record was correct, put the whole thing down to an administrative error and kicked him out again. Even now he was the only being he knew of who’d entered that building in custody and come out of it alive—or at least the only being who’d come out alive with all of their marbles still in place.
‘Three hundred and seventy two counts of failing to stop for a police vehicle?’ Burton Coggles said and he laughed out right at that. Something about that laugh was very familiar.
The Pan cleared his throat and looked Coggles straight in the eye, ‘Um … that might be a bit of an exaggeration on their part,’ he said. ‘I think they sometimes cover their arses by saying I failed to stop when really it’s just that they can’t be bothered to chase me.’
Burton Coggles was now grinning from ear-to-ear.
‘I think you are playing this down. It doesn’t matter. It simply means that we have both very much annoyed our Grongolian overlords in some capacity,’ he gave The Pan a conspiratorial wink. ‘Good. We have a common bond in that we enjoy pricking the bubble of the pompous!’ The Pan wasn’t sure that he enjoyed it, exactly, but he had to concede that they deserved it, so he didn’t demur. ‘Now,’ Coggles continued. ‘What have you discovered?’
‘I went and did some research in the library,’ Burton’s eyebrows shot up. They were finely trimmed and manicured, The Pan noticed, possibly a bit over-manicured in some respects. More like a woman’s than a man’s.
‘Tell me. I am agog.’
Jenny Jack appeared with two large plates laden with bacon, eggs, sausages, mushrooms and fried tomatoes caked in their dark, caramelised juices. There was also eggy bread, fried bread and something called a K’Barthan meat a square which was a sort of breakfast burger which had originated from the town of Lorne, up in the north of K’Barth, near Glardy but which was so good it had become a staple, country-wide in no time. The final touch was patties made from potato flour and a small pot of hot beans in tomato sauce.
‘Jenny! If this is the result I will buy your boy breakfast more often!’ said Burton.
‘Get away with you Mr Coggles,’ said Jenny. ‘This is my standard fare and you know it.’
The Pan looked up at her, met her eyes and said, ‘Thank you,’ because it pays to be polite and he wasn’t sure this was Jenny’s standard fare. He was pretty sure this was the deluxe version.
‘I’ll be back in a moment with the sauces,’ she said.
‘Before you do, is there any sign of Boothby?’ Coggles asked.
She looked down at him sadly.
‘No, I’m afraid not,’ she said.
‘Oh dear,’ he said.
‘He’s only half an hour late, maybe he’s been held up.’
‘I doubt that. If it had been the other way round then yes, I would have been late because I have very little ability to keep track of time. However, Boothby, is a most punctual man.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Jenny. ‘I very much hope he will arrive any minute,’ a beat. ‘I’ll just go and get the condiments.’
The Pan and Burton Coggles waited in silence until she reappeared and placed a tray of sauces in the middle of the table. She also handed them cutlery and serviettes before ducking back into the kitchen a second time and returning with cups, a jug of hot milk and a full coffee pot. ‘I’ll leave you two alone now,’ she said, retreating back into the kitchen and closing the door behind her.
For a moment there was no sound in the office but the two of them eating. It still wasn’t as awkward as The Pan expected it to be. Burton Coggles was very easy company, for all his intensity. He watched as The Pan ate most of the food on his plate in about five minutes.
‘You eat like a starving man,’ he said drily.
Having not eaten much in the previous twenty four hours, The Pan reflected that this was probably about right but what he said was,
‘I’m still growing and I have hollow legs. Sorry, there’s you on tenterhooks waiting to find out what has happened to your friend and I’m stuffing my face.’
‘Stuff away,’ said Burton.
‘I think I can manage to talk and eat now,’ The Pan said.
‘I’m so pleased,’ said Burton lightly.
‘OK, so, as I said, someone in town is making a lot of money selling Goojan Spiced Sausage on the black market and the evidence so far suggests that it’s Marcella. I think after following Mr Pagnel to Tarbut a couple of days ago, it merely adds weight to the gossip. I also think she might have kidnapped Mrs Pagnel and very possibly, Mr Pagnel.’
‘Oh dear,’ said Burton Coggles.
The Pan went on to tell Coggles about the Galorsh he’d met in the library and how he suspected it was one of Marcella’s crew.
‘Then when he’d gone, I discovered he’d left a letter to deliver to Mr Pagnel. I went to his house yesterday but no-one was there. I was hoping I might find him here today. But I think there’s some kind of coded message in it and I’m hoping you might know what it means. Do you think you could?’
‘There’s only one way to find out.’
‘Yeh, I guess there is,’ The Pan unfolded the paper and pushed it across the table. ‘Here,’ he said.
Coggles read the letter in silence.
‘Ah the Criterion!’ he said. ‘So many years ago, The Grongles had just declared war at that point but they hadn’t done anything. Boothby and I hired a venue and put on a show. Something happened, a fight.’
‘More of an altercation really.’ Coggles waved a dismissive hand. ‘Truly. Don’t look at me like that! It was nothing more than a bit of shoving and pushing and it was over in a moment. Nothing was damaged unduly, just a table and a chandelier, and no-one was hurt. I don’t know why but the front of house manager—frightful man—he got the hump with us and started wrangling over the hire payment. It was all a trifling misunderstanding which we could have sorted out in seconds. You know how it is with these things, I seem to recall that he wanted the money paid directly into the theatre account but after the … fisticuffs … he demanded money for damages in cash! He went absolutely mad. Accused us of breaking the terms of our contract to hire the place, locked us all in and told us he would keep us there until the police arrived. We sorted it out, of course, by some fluke of good fortune a couple of the theatre’s patrons were in the audience and they got wind of it and smoothed things over. In the end we escaped from the theatre before the police turned up but it was all rather dicky for a moment there.’
‘You were held against your will?’
Suddenly serious again, Burton Coggles gave The Pan a measured look.
‘You could say that we were, albeit briefly,’ he said. ‘I’m assuming that Priscilla’s implication, in the letter she’s written, is that she, too is being held against her will.’
‘Woah,’ The Pan sat back in his seat. ‘That’s not good news.’
‘No it isn’t. Boothby and I are supposed to be attending an important work event this afternoon and if one of us isn’t there it will be disastrous.’
‘Oh yes. I should think there’ll be a riot.’
‘What sort of … riot?’
‘The usual sort.’
‘You mean, a running-battles-in-the-street kind of riot?’
‘Darling, as far as I’m aware, that’s the only kind there is,’ said Burton.
‘The good citizens of Ning Dang Po will be angry.’
‘No I meant why? It takes a lot to start a riot, it’s dangerous, people get hurt.’
‘It’s rather convoluted and I’m afraid I’m sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say, this isn’t so much about us, as about who we supply.’
How would that start a riot? The Pan wondered.
‘What do you write then? Jenny says the pair of you laugh like drains but you told me it isn’t comedy.’
‘No. It’s a little more satirical than that.’
The Pan could feel his brow puckering as he frowned. Oh hang on.
‘You write satire?’
It had to be one of the halls they wrote for then, but The Pan couldn’t imagine which one for the life of him. The only act that could generate that kind of reaction was Plange and Knutt. There just wasn’t anyone else K’Barthan with that sort of fan base, even the most popular ones were underground; popping up at the halls here and there and disappearing again, their material was seldom filmed and if it was it was on the dark web which was extremely difficult to access, even from the anonymity of an internet cafe. ‘Can you come up with something on your own?’ he asked.
‘Yes I can but it won’t be the same. If you work with a partner there’s a dynamic and it changes when you work without them.’
‘Yeh, I get that.’ The Pan ran his hand through his hair. ‘Arnold’s conkers! That’s not good, the security forces are jumpy enough at the moment.’
‘We need an in with this Marcella, the Pirate, woman. I should imagine if I pay her enough, she’ll give the Pagnels back eventually.’
‘I don’t know. She stands to lose a lot of money.’
‘I have a lot of money.’
‘This is serious money. More than any K’Barthan could ever hope to earn. It doesn’t help that she’s bats either. I mean, she thinks she’s a pirate.’
‘I realise that, the clue is in her name, young man.’
‘Yeh,’ The Pan blushed and looked down. ‘Sorry.’
‘No, I’m sorry, I didn’t intend to embarrass you, I have a somewhat acerbic way of speaking sometimes.’
‘It’s fine,’ said The Pan. ‘And only to be expected, I mean, you write satire.’
Burton inclined his head and flashed The Pan a wry smile.
‘I think we need to go over Marcella’s head and talk to The Boss. There has to be one. Crime is like any other business I’d say, so if Marcella is on the board, so to speak, I assume I need to get hold of the managing director.’
He threw The Pan an enquiring look that said ‘Can you arrange this?’ rather more clearly than using the actual words.
The Pan raised one eyebrow, subjected Burton Coggles to the most sceptical looks in his repertoire and said, ‘You sound as if you think I can help there.’
‘You told me you’re a dab hand at following people without being seen.’
‘I said I’m good at blending in.’
‘The same thing put diplomatically.’
‘Alright, but that’s hardly the same as saying I work for a ganglord.’
‘It’s a talent nobody who didn’t work for a ganglord would have the opportunity to discover. The rest of us don’t need to blend in.’
‘I think so darling. And something must be keeping you alive.’
‘It might be my wits,’ said The Pan with a flourish, not to mention a bravado that he didn’t feel and Burton Coggles guffawed.
‘I should imagine they help; you clearly have plenty of them—’ Ooo nice backhander there, The Pan noted. ‘However, you can’t survive solely on the largesse of people like the lovely Jenny. I may be a middle-aged queen and quite chronically out of touch with youth culture but I’m not a complete fool. Your clothes are clean, you don’t smell and while you might be hungry you’re not malnourished. And how old are you? Late teens? Early twenties? The kind of age when you’d be hungry most of the time even if you had a roof over your head and three square meals a day.’
‘But I might—’
‘Furthermore, you admitted, without the smallest hint of compunction or shame, that you are an urchin, and while I am aware that you didn’t say you worked for a ganglord, I’ve made the bold assumption—correctly, I believe—that you do.’
‘Right,’ said The Pan slowly.
‘Yes, I am.’
‘That’s not how I meant it when I said “right” just then.’
‘I realise,’ Burton smiled wryly. ‘Nonetheless, I stand by my interpretation.’
The Pan heaved a sigh.
‘OK, I run messages for a gang lord from time-to-time and he pays me because otherwise, if I’ve no cash, I nick stuff. Nothing big, you understand, things I can’t do without like food, soap, toothpaste … that kind of stuff. But apparently it upsets the status quo and ticks him off so he gives me work to do so I can buy the things I nick and stop messing up his nice clean patch. There. Happy now?’
‘I might be, I’ve made another bold assumption here.’
‘You ought to stop doing that,’ said The Pan.
‘But darling! It’s working so well.’
The Pan gave him a look. ‘Not that well,’ he said.
‘Don’t be pouty!’ The Pan narrowed his eyes at him. ‘It’s just a small question. Is your boss an orange Swamp Thing?’
The Pan swallowed.
‘He’s not my boss exactly.’
‘Then it must be one worse. He owns you. Does he own you?’
‘Where do you get all this stuff.’
‘I have made the odd enquiry.’
‘From where I’m standing it looks more like an intensive investigation.’
‘I like to think I’m thorough. I’m a little OCD so it’s important to me to know exactly what, or who, I’m dealing with.’
The Pan ran his hands through his hair.
‘OK, you should understand that he’s quite sensitive about his colour. I really wouldn’t mention it to him if I were you.’
‘So you do work for Big Merv.’
‘I deliver letters and run errands for him sometimes’
‘But you can introduce me to him.’
Arnold’s plums. No! Not at all. Big Merv was not the kind of being who would talk to anyone The Pan introduced him to. Especially not this morning.
‘I can try, but I can’t promise anything. Last night there was a bit of a … you know …’
‘Now you come to mention it.’
‘Yes. It was on the KBC this morning. All I want to do is talk to him.’
‘Look, I can take you to his office and ask him if he’ll listen. Most likely, he’ll tell me to get lost and to take you with me, but if he doesn’t, that’s all I can do, ask him to meet you, ask some of the others to ask him and hopefully get you in to see him so you can say your piece. He doesn’t listen to me, I’m not on his radar unless I stuff up so if I go trying to help you in any obvious way myself, it’ll probably do more harm than good. In fact, I can guarantee that he will not be pleased to see us.’
‘He will be different if you show him the letter and we tell him I can explain the Criterion clue.’
‘He might but,’ The Pan shrugged. ‘I can’t guarantee it. If we find Marlon and Johnno—two of my colleagues—and explain it to them, we might get them on side and then, after that, with their help, we might get Big Merv to listen. But even if he does, I don’t know if he’ll help you. I don’t know if he can.’
‘Darling! That’s wonderful. I suggest we go and see him after breakfast?’
Bob was on duty this morning The Pan remembered so now was probably as good a time as any.
‘If you’re sure you want to do this.’